Thanks to the revelations in the material on surveillance released by Edward Snowden, the United States is now taking baby steps towards reforming the system. Late in the week the House did vote to limit “backdoor searches.” The amendment received bipartisan support, showing how opposition to excessive NSA surveillance is an issue which does not fall under usual partisan lines. More Democrats than Republicans did vote in favor, Democrats voting it 158 to 29, with Republicans voting it 135 to 94 in favor.
Vox explained the significance:
What’s a backdoor search?
In 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act (FAA), which expanded the government’s warrantless surveillance powers.Ordinarily, the Fourth Amendment requires an individualized warrant before the government can engage in surveillance on American soil. But the FAA created an alternative process where a judge can authorize entire surveillance programs without necessarily knowing which specific people will be surveillance targets. The PRISM program, which the NSA uses to obtain private information from companies such as Google and Facebook, was authorized under this provision of the FAA.
The George W. Bush administration argued that it needed this new power to spy on terrorists whose communications passed through the United States. The FAA included a provision barring the government from using the surveillance facilities to “target” Americans. The problem, civil liberties groups argue, is that “targeting” is defined in a way that doesn’t actually protect Americans. There are ways for the NSA to effectively spy on Americans without technically “targeting” them.
One example is what’s known as a backdoor search. In this technique, the NSA engages in wide surveillance of communications that involve both Americans and foreigners. So long as the foreigners are the official “target,” this is permitted under the FAA. The NSA sometimes stores the information it has collected in a giant database. And the agency has taken the position that it can search this database for information about Americans without running afoul of the no-targeting-Americans rule.
What does the amendment do?
Congress is considering a bill to fund the military for the 2015 fiscal year, and that includes funding for the National Security Agency. The amendment offered by Sensenbrenner and his colleagues and Lofgren prohibits the NSA from using any funds provided in the bill to “query a collection of foreign intelligence information” acquired under the FAA “using a United States person identifier.
In other words, it would ban the use of federal funds to conduct backdoor searches. In practice, that would make it illegal for the NSA to engage in backdoor searches during the 2015 fiscal year.
The legislation does allow such searches in cases where another court order has authorized surveillance of the American being targeted.
The legislation also effectively bars the NSA or the Central Intelligence Agency from forcing device manufacturers to install technical “backdoors” in their products.
Is that a big deal?
By itself, the amendment falls short of the kind of sweeping NSA reforms some civil liberties groups support. But the vote represents the first time a house of Congress has voted to curtail the controversial practices revealed by Ed Snowden last year. It will give NSA critics renewed political momentum and may force President Obama to make further concessions to critics of the NSA.
In August, Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) offered an amendment to last year’s defense funding bill that would have shut down a different NSA program: the collection of Americans’ phone records. That vote failed in a razor-thin 205 to 217 vote. The surprising closeness of the vote was widely interpreted as a sign of congressional anger over the NSA’s actions.
Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues that the vote is a rebuke to the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee. That body is supposed to serve as a watchdog over NSA surveillance, but in recent years it has more often acted as a defender of NSA policies. The vote, Sanchez says, “demonstrates pretty dramatically that the gatekeepers in the Intelligence Committee are out of synch with the sentiment of the broader House.”
Sanchez also notes that similar language was stripped from the USA FREEDOM Act, legislation intended to rein in the NSA that wound up being substantially weakened during the legislative process.
Spencer Ackerman wrote more on why this is important at The Guardian.
Meanwhile, TechDirt reports: a group of Senators, Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich, sent President Obama a letter reminding him that he can live up to his promise to end bulk phone record collection today by simply having the DOJ not seek to renew the court order from the FISA Court getting the phone operators to hand over that data.
We welcome your proposal, announced on March 27, 2014, to end the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act. We believe as you do that the government can protect national security by collecting the phone records of individuals connected to terrorism, instead of collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We also believe that you have the authority to implement your proposal now, rather than continuing to reauthorize the existing bulk collection program in 90-day increments.
James Clapper’s office issued a statement that “the government has sought a 90-day reauthorization of the existing program, as modified by the changes the President announced earlier this year.”
Wait. Given what importance of maintaining the capabilities? So far, every analysis of the program has shown that it wasn’t important at all. How could anyone in the administration still claim with a straight face that the Section 215 bulk phone records collection is “important” when everyone who’s seen the evidence agrees that the program has been next to useless in stopping terrorism.
I imagine we will be returning to this in another ninety days to see if there is truly further progress in reforming the surveillance process from the Obama administration. Hopefully by then Congress also passes legislation containing the amendment preventing backdoor searches.
Initially posted at Liberal Values